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What is Dark Data?

Dark data, what is it and why all the fuss?

First, I’ll give you the short answer. The right dark data, just like its brother right Big Data, can be monetised – honest, guv! There’s loadsa money to be made from dark data by ‘them that want to’, and as value propositions go, seriously, what could be more attractive?

Let’s take a look at the market.

Gartner defines dark data as “the information assets organizations collect, process and store during regular business activities, but generally fail to use for other purposes” (IT Glossary – Gartner)

Techopedia describes dark data as being data that is “found in log files and data archives stored within large enterprise class data storage locations. It includes all data objects and types that have yet to be analyzed for any business or competitive intelligence or aid in business decision making.” (Techopedia – Cory Jannsen)

Cory also wrote that “IDC, a research firm, stated that up to 90 percent of big data is dark data.”

In an interesting whitepaper from C2C Systems it was noted that “PST files and ZIP files account for nearly 90% of dark data by IDC Estimates.” and that dark data is “Very simply, all those bits and pieces of data floating around in your environment that aren’t fully accounted for:” (Dark Data, Dark Email – C2C Systems)

Elsewhere, Charles Fiori defined dark data as “data whose existence is either unknown to a firm, known but inaccessible, too costly to access or inaccessible because of compliance concerns.” (Shedding Light on Dark Data – Michael Shashoua)

Not quite the last insight, but in a piece published by Datameer, John Nicholson wrote that “Research firm IDC estimates that 90 percent of digital data is dark.” And went on to state that “This dark data may come in the form of machine or sensor logs” (Shine Light on Dark Data – Joe Nicholson via Datameer)

Finally, Lug Bergman of NGDATA wrote this in a sponsored piece in Wired: “It” – dark data – “is different for each organization, but it is essentially data that is not being used to get a 360 degree view of a customer.

Say what?

Okay, let’s see if we can be a bit more specific about the content of dark data?

Items on the dark data ticket include: Email; Instant messages; documents; Sharepoint content; content of collaboration databases; ZIP files; log files; archived sensor and signal data; archived web content; aged audit trails; operational database backups – full and incremental; roll-back, redo and spooled data files; sunsetted applications (code and documentation); partially developed and then abandoned applications; and, code snippets.

Most importantly, dark data is data that is not actively in use, is underutilised, or is something else. Seriously.

What can you do with it?

So, the conclusion that some have come to is this: there is a vast collection of data in various formats waiting to be monetised.

Personally, the idea that really grabs my attention is the potential ability to do novel forensic research on email. If only to find out what happened in the past.

For example, maybe it would be fascinating to see how significant challenges were identified, flagged and discussed; how strategic responses to those challenges were formulated, chosen and executed; and, how the outcomes of all of that process were reflected in email communications.

I think that this line of work can be very interesting for some people, and that interesting insights may be uncovered, but I would hate to have to put a tangible value on it, if only to avoid adding to the already galactic magnitudes of nonsense and hype surrounding certain data topics.

There are other more mundane uses of dark data.

Imagine that you are just about to embark on a Data Warehouse project (you really are a late adopter aren’t you), and you want establish a base collection of historical data. Where do you get that historical data from?

Right! Operational databases are not characteristically used to store significant amounts of historical reference data and historical transactions beyond a certain time window; there are performance and other reasons for keeping OLTP systems as lean as possible, so, initial loads of historical data is typically recreated in the Data Warehouse from backups, audit trails or logs.

Dark data and data governance

You don’t need a Chief Data Officer in order to be able to catalogue all your data assets. However, it is still good idea to have a reliable inventory of all your business data, including the euphemistically termed Big Data and dark data.

If you have such an inventory, you will know:

What you have, where it is, where it came from, what it is used in, what qualitative or quantitative value it may have, and how it relates to other data (including metadata) and the business.

What needs to be kept, and for how long, and what can be safely discarded, and when.

The risks associated with the retention or loss of that data.

If you don’t have such a catalogue and have never done a data inventory then a full data inventory and audit seems to be your new best friend.

What does it mean?

Simply stated, you may have dark data that has value, or it may be a simple collection of worthless digital nostalgia. But if you don’t know what you have, it may pay to find out what’s there, and if necessary, to let it go.

There is no point in hoarding unneeded and unwanted rubbish data. That is simply not good data management.

Finally a word on all the fuss surrounding dark data.

Failure to monetize when there is value to be obtained from dark data is one thing, claiming that value can be invariably obtained whilst actually not knowing what the data is, or how it could be monetised, is just adding to the mountain of data related ‘nonsense and hype’ doing the rounds these days. Please consider not adding to that mountain.

That’s all folks

British Rail, the national UK rail Company, used to be notorious for the number of delays and cancellations to services, and their reasons for failing to meet their obligations became stranger and stranger.

In winter, it would snow and there would be problems. And people would ask ‘how come you couldn’t deal with the snow this year, we’ve had snow for centuries?’ And back came the answers ‘Yes, Sir, but this year it was the wrong type of snow’. In autumn (the fall), it was ‘the wrong types of leaves, and ‘the wrong type of rain’, and in Summer, the ‘wrong type of sunshine’ and so on and so forth.

I hope this will not be the excuse from the Big Data and dark data pundits and punters when the much-vaunted and ‘almost’ guaranteed monetisation isn’t frequently realised.

‘Of course Big Data gives you big dollar benefits, it was just littered with the wrong type of data’ or ‘you just weren’t trying hard enough’.

Many thanks for reading.

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